To those from the outside looking in, Atalanta appear as one of Italian football’s lesser known clubs. Calcio is renowned for culture, history and tradition, but various issues within the sport, most notably match fixing and the general consensus of a defensive style making for less than entertaining spectacles, does not promise much for the future. La Dea (the Goddess) may just change that perception.
Watching Serie A and the Italian national team closely over the last few years shows that the stereotypes used to describe them are not only derogatory, but not true. Antonio Conte’s Azzurri side were unexpectedly expressive at the European Championships in the summer, in the image of the excitable and vibrant coach who is now having a similar impact on a Chelsea side who looked in a state of flux some months ago. Playing three defenders and wing-backs was once seen as a conservative approach, but it is all change now. That system has always been incredibly popular in Italy and is helping change attitudes. Conte led the way when in charge of Juventus, whose primary focus is always to attack, and other teams share that ideology – including Atalanta.
Something of a positive image that came from the perception of calcio was the ability of so many teams to maintain ‘evergreen’ players. Right through Serie A, the lifespan of a footballer would be stretched beyond the average in the likes of England or Germany. Francesco Totti is still going strong at 40 years old with Roma, while Udinese’s former talisman Antonio Di Natale only hung up his boots earlier this year, aged 39, having scored over 200 goals across a remarkable career. It was a phenomenon that ran much deeper, though, with Milan dedicating their state of the art training complex to helping numerous players – including Paolo Maldini – prolong their time on the pitch.
Critiques of Calcio would suggest it is stuck in the past, but again, this is an opinion with very little substance. A host of exciting young players are coming through, and not just at the biggest clubs either. Manuel Locatelli is showing their could be light at the end of a dark few years for Milan, but Torino’s striker sensation Andrea Belotti, Fiorentina’s Federico Bernadeschi and Sassuolo’s Domenico Berardi are just the tip of a very fruitful iceberg for Italy. Atalanta, though, are a club looking forward more than most, with one of the best youth systems in the country providing the backbone for not only a successful future, but an impressive present, too.
Dubbed ‘the La Masia of Italy’ in homage to similarities to Barcelona’s famous academy that has been central to arguably the most dominant era ever in club football, Atalanta’s is based on similar principles. When table-toppers Juventus welcomed the blue and blacks to Turin two weeks ago, they faced a side on the precipice of something huge, with their fast-flowing, attacking formation dwarfing most who stood in their way, with a host of players promoted from within at their very heart.
In the end, Juve won 3-1 as they continued to flex their muscles. But coming into the game, Atalanta were fifth in the league and on a seven-game winning streak having scored 16 goals in the process. Roma and Inter were among their victims, but the most impressive aspect of their form was how effective, and open, Atalanta were in their play. Goals came from all over the pitch, but they always looked in control of the games, because their whole system is so well thought out.
Franck Kessie, Andrea Conti, Roberto Gagliardini and Mattia Caldara are making the most headlines in the current squad but, much like Barcelona and any other successful academy, their production line goes back a long way. Christian Doni, Riccardo Montolivo, who has gone on to become a centrepiece at both Fiorentina and Milan and Simone Zaza, a striker who has made strides with Juve and is currently in the Premier League on loan at West Ham United, are just three players who began in Bergamo, where Atalanta are based.
Of the latest crop, defenders Conti and Caldara, along with midfield counterpart Gagliardini, are part of what will surely be a bright future on an international front for Italy. It is Kessie, though, who perhaps best encapsulates what Atalanta are about. The 19-year-old Ivory Coast midfielder is a powerful presence despite only being six feet tall, and his versatility, having played in defence at times this season, is complimented by the fact he is the club’s top scorer with five goals. Such a statistic not only demonstrates his talents, but also the attacking philosophy and team spirit within the ranks.
Italian football has a unique atmosphere. Most people associate it with defensive solidarity, late-developing players and in recent times, the negativity attached to matcg-fixing and corruption. Atalanta are going against the grain and heading up an exciting new era for Calcio, as well as playing a prominent role over the years. They may not be Serie A’s best-known club, but their time is coming.
About the author – Harry De Cosemo
Harry is a European football writer specialising in English, Spanish and Italian football. He has worded for a number of publications including MARCA in English, uMAXit football, FourFourTwo and The Press Association.